Sunday, August 28, 2011

Welcome Home

This is the last posting meant for an immediate audience. After this one, I'll continue to write, but I'll take you off the emailing list and won't get anymore notices. You're free to visit the site whenever you want, but I'm I'll be writing less frequent.

Noah and I are sitting in the local coffeehouse of Columbus. He's grading papers, I'm looking busy. I'm trying to write things these days. I'm trying to think back on the past few months and find a coherent way to sum them up without being too. . . trite.

I feel many things when I think back on Thailand. One word doesn't come to mind, of course. It's all to grand for just one word. I can't even grasp one emotion that dealt with that event. It's too monumental for me to trivialize into a neat package.

How was Thailand? People ask me and and I still don't know what to say. There's that pause, punctuated with me thinking for a tactful way to respond. Good?

How was your trip? People ask me and I get a little angry. I did not take a trip, I want to say. I sacrificed time, I left my husband after a month of being married. I gave to children who didn't mind taking all of my energy. I cried and I was scared. I cried and I was lonely. I did not take a trip, for that would imply I went on a week long vacation to the nice parts of Bangkok, stepped into the seedy places, for sport and came home with the rest of the tourists.

How was Thailand? Good? Awful? Trying?A key player in saving my soul? It was all of those things and many more. There were wonderful times that I can recount, filled with a lot of happiness and excitement. I had friends who helped keep the loneliness and anxiety at bay. I had a solid group of friends from back home that kept steady contact with me and who always had time for me. My husband and his parents, my sister, Evan and Evelyn, were blessings on the days I didn't feel like leaving my house and I needed someone to talk to.

The small experiences that I had that showed me a new way of thinking, made me loosen up, pulled me out of myself--- those were blessings as well. Interactions, food, odd Thai quirks will always make me remember the wonderful culture that I was fortunate enough to experience. I will always look back on my time with happiness and pride. I hope to tell my children about my bravery, how I stepped outside of what I once deemed comfortable, normal and became a citizen of the world. I want to encourage them to do the same.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Communism

This is really a posting on what I've learned as a new teacher and not so much the socioeconomic ideas of Marx. Jokingly, Noah and I would say that we are the socialists of our respective families. "Let's all work together and share the wealth!" But we work the best we can in the society that we've been born into and I think that I'm a pretty decent capitalist kid. When one of my students called me a communist on Friday, it made me think differently.

This sudden anger arose from my terribly "high-pressured" attendance policy, one that I've recently enforced. "15 minutes late to class and you're marked absent." This was an attempt to stop the strolling into class thirty minutes late and expecting to be counted present. As we all know, that kind of tardiness is distracting for me and the rest of the students. I had to put a end to the madness and set some boundaries.

This new rule rubbed students the wrong way. Their interpretation of it was me being unyielding. "Are you saying that because I'm one minute late, you're marking me absent?!"

What they really meant to say was: Are you saying that because I'm sixteen minutes late, you're marking me absent, you dirty commie?!"

I've gotten a lot of angry students protesting it; I've gotten a lot of confused Thai teachers who think it might be too strict. And now I've got one student who thinks I'm enforcing Mother Russia's Stalinist rule upon her.

It's through my experience with the students and talking with fellow teachers, that I've learned t it wasn't a good idea to come into teaching wanting to be the student's friend. I imagine every teacher that starts off, has huge ideas. One idea being that their youth and creativity will make the children see and obey. And I imagine all students know this and take advantage of it.

Is it terribly regrettable? No not really, I don't regret the valuable lessons that I've learn from all the mistakes I've made. The time and energy lost however, is a hard pill to swallow. If I had started the semester with my attendance rule, I would have save myself some headache and I would have trained the students. As it is, most of the students take the "15 minute law" pretty seriously. I've got them running through the halls and checking their watches.

Firm is the way to start out. According to my friend and veteran teacher, Cindy, there's a saying that goes amongst teachers: "Don't let them see you smile until after Thanksgiving." It makes sense to me. I've done things in the reverse, which confused the kids, and left some feeling a little like they may have lost their pal.

I'm okay with that I suppose. I came here to do a job, not to be anyone's buddy. And with one full week of teaching left, I'm stickin' to my guns. I would suggest that the new teacher, Nick, do the same. Although he'll certainly have his own unique experience with teaching, he'll most likely have the same start. The same inner conflict of picking what kind of relationship he will want with his students.

I would invoke the words of imperialistic President Teddy Roosevelt. "Walk softly and carry a big stick."

Then he should start rationing out their meat supplies.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

All in a Day's Shopping

I just got back from my own solo Sunday Session. It was a lot less educational than Charish and Dave's Sunday Session, but still fun and relaxing all the same. I've been shopping the local markets just outside the mall and I found some great deals.

I've learned that you should never shop in the mall. Everything is as overpriced as you think and there's really no such thing as a "sale." Outside the mall is a huge market called The Pin klao Market, a tent with a thousand little stalls selling everything a woman would need to stock her walk-in closet.

*WALK-IN CLOSET* I'm talking to you Noah *WALK-IN CLOSET*

Purses, shoes, jewelry, sunglasses, underwear, dresses, school uniforms. . . like I said, everything. While shopping in Pin Klao, I've become a lot more savvy in negotiating prices.

One thing I recommend in Thailand is learning key phrases in the language before shopping. Duh. It might be an obvious one, but I've seen westerners forget this and they end up talking louder, getting frustrated, and sometimes getting scammed.

I amble. I try not to walk as fast as I would on the street. I take my time, stop every other two feet and thoughtfully touch something. I give a "hmm." That's all it takes to attract a salesperson, sometimes a lot less. They greet me and I always smile and say "sawadee kaa." They will pitch their sale to me as if I understand. I have no idea what they are saying. I nod, always thoughtfully, furrow my brow, and say "hmm" some more. When I've spotted something I think I might like, I ask, "Tow rai?" How much? When they give me their price, I nod again. By now I sound like a Campbell Soup commercial. "Hmm. . ." Right now, is their chance to talk up this product some more:

"It's hand-made!"
"It's made of genuine leather!"
"It's from Paris!"
"We have it in extra large!"

I hear that last one often. If their price isn't doing it for me, I'll slowly back away with a pensive, losing interest expression. At this point, they might start talking faster.

"Maybe discount for you!"

Oh yeah?

Sometimes there's something I really want and I have to take a more offensive approach. That's where my knowledge of Thai numbers comes in handy. They are impressed that I know that much Thai in the first place. They don't expect it. Little do they know that's all the Thai I can speak. Once I saw a shirt for 280 baht. I inspected it in front of the saleswoman and put it back on the wall. "hmm."

"240," I told her.
She frowned and shook her head. A lesser woman would back down. I looked through the other tops and saw that the one I wanted was the only grey one. "No more grey," I told her. "Plus, it's medium! 240."

She pauses and I know I've got her. "270."
We keep this up until we've reached a compromise with 250. We both feel like winners.

Then there are just magically moments that occur without my doing anything. Like today. I was able to get discounts off of two items because. . . well I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm just a nice gal. When those happen, I just smile, thank them, and make a mental note to bring my business back.

Whew, I'm a little tired from all that walking and looking and spending money. I want a caramel latte. I'm getting spoiled :(

Friday, September 11, 2009

Brown Like Me

On my last Sunday Session with Dave, we were accosted by a Thai man who wanted to know why Dave was "so white."

While minding our own business at a riverside park, a not so subtle but very witty Thai man came strolling up to us. He stopped, with his hands held behind his back, he stared at Dave in amusement. "You are you so white," he said. "Why?"

Dave was more than a little perplexed. I watched in amazement. Could one just state the obvious like that? The Thai can. Things like race, sexuality, and often at times, weight are not at all taboo to discuss directly. I suppose we shouldn't have been too surprised that a stranger would just point that out.

Dave shrugged. "I'm English."

The man pointed at my leg. "She is brown." He pointed to his arm. "I am brown." Then he finished the circle. "You are white." Before Dave could reply, the man directed his attention to me. "Are you Thai?"


"Why are you brown?"

"I'm. . ." I was confused, that's what I was. "African American. I'm black."

And now he was confused or suspicious. I have had many Thais question my ethnicity, just like some Americans do. They know that I'm not Thai, but I'm not just black either and it must be verified.

Another color related issue took place in my classroom. The girls of my level two class are usually a rowdy bunch, but mostly cute and precocious. It was after one lesson that I was packing up my things and about to exit the room, when one of my students pointed out how brown I was. Mai compared me to another one of my students, a cute brown Thai girl named Bell.

"Mother and daughter," Mai said to us and pointed to our arms. The other students giggled about it and I cringed inwardly. They may not have realized it, but I felt like we had walked into something that was potentially awkward. I looked at Bell who gave me an unusually strained smile.

What I already know about Bell made me think twice about my response. She's the darkest in a group of light-skinned Thai girlfriends and I think she's quite aware of it. It might be the reason, she seems to identify with me. She marvels at my fashion sense (truthfully, I hate wearing my teacher's uniform. I'm glad someone appreciates it) and is always telling me how beautiful I am. I return the favor, not because I feel sorry for her, but because she really is. She's got lovely burnt sienna skin, dark expressive eyes, and such an inviting smile.

One day, I asked her if she was looking forward to our field trip to the beach (to see those sea turtles), she was not happy. "Too much sun."

"Yeah? So?"

She pointed to her arm and frowned. I didn't like hearing that.

I also didn't like it when her and her friends came to my class, with so much powder, they looked like a gaggle of geishas. It was more obvious on Bell with her being so much darker than the other girls. I don't understand how she could think she looked better with a pound of powder hiding the skin she was born with.

So as I faced the girls and Bell, I chose my words carefully. "Not mother and daughter, I'm too young for kids," I told them. "We're more like sisters."

They nodded in recognition and Bell flashed me that beautiful smile of hers. Crisis averted.

Race isn't an issue here in Thailand, but color is. There are no dark skinned models or actresses representing in the media. This isn't unusual though, many countries and cultures share this idea of beauty. I find it interesting that my experiences here have been eerily similar to the one's I've had as a kid in America. When I was younger, my mother told my sister and I not to play in the sun. She wasn't as concerned about our safety as she was our appearance.

"Do you want to get black?"
Before I could reply, "Duh, mom, I already am," I just put on a hat to her appease her.

I wonder what Bell's mom has told her.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Familiar Friend

Bright colors yellow, red, orange, swirl around me as I step through the automatic door and into a paradise full of fried potatoes and "all beef patties."

McDonalds in Bangkok is such a delight! There's a general feeling of privilege as you dine there. It is actually the most expensive meal the average Thai will eat. At a hundred and thirty baht, I could be eating eight omelets and a couple meats on sticks. I wouldn't. That's just an illustration. Potatoes might be a expensive but beef and cheese are gold!

Take just a moment to think about your local American McDonalds. Pimply sixteen year olds spitting in the quarter pounders, massive amounts of health violations. Weekly e. coli scares. "We forgot your apple pie? Okay, what about it?"
"This isn't your order? Well, can you eat it anyway? You like chicken nuggets, right?"
"You ordered twenty minutes ago? I guess we lost it. . ."

Okay, now ready yourself for this:

I walked into the restaurant and I was met with a chipper teen girl with a flouncy red apron who may or may not have said: " Sa wa dee ka, ma ha na. . . something. . . kaa!" I take it that meant: "Welcome to McDonalds, we have a promotion on the new chicken burger!" I smiled and nodded. This young woman walks around like a bird of paradise, her makeup and hair immaculate and her uniform is trendy. Her job is to greet customers, clear off tables and direct people to a table! Can you believe that? A hostess!

The bright lights and signs were begging me to shoot myself with some beefy dopamine goodness. What do I want? What do I want? I want it all! I'll have a large fry, a large nugget, a Big Mac, a large, coke and two apple pies. Simmer down, girl. We're going to get through this trip without making a fool of ourselves.

"Sa wa dee KAA!" said an equally chipper counter girl.
"KAA!" I replied, excited that I was being welcomed in a McDonald's for the first time in my life. No one looked bored or angry that I had interrupted their food fight or prank intercom shenanigans to request food!

"Can I have a double cheeseburger set, please?" Instead calling things "Big Mac Meals," they call them sets. Perhaps they think it's a little presumptuous to call a burger and fries a "meal."
The counter girl was all over it. She shouted to someone and things were happening so rapidly, I couldn't keep up. My meal was out on the counter before I could stick my hand in my pocket for money. I looked at the girl dumbly. "Is that mine?"

Her head bobbed up and down. "One hundred thirty nine baht."

My paid and noticed that my drink was a coke, I also noticed that they didn't ask me if I'd wanted a coke. Apparently it's a default drink. As I looked around the dining area for a place to sit, I found I didn't have to look long. The hostess, who had obviously been keeping an eye on me, ushered me to a table without much preamble. "Thank you," I murmured, still amazed by this treatment.

How was the meal? The fries were hot and crispy, the burger was hot and cheesy with a ton of ketchup and pickles that I'd removed no matter what country I'm in. It was calming to sit amongst the calamity of being in a new location but with an old familiar friend. Until the old familiar feeling of guilt came back. "What the hell am I doing eating this? I stopped eating this stuff when I was in America!"

When I was finished, I quickly left, pretending that I was never in there.

P.S. Some other things I found really interesting about Bangkok McDonalds:

1. The ketchup doesn't taste the same. Something about this kind is slightly sweeter and thinner consistency. Next to ketchup dispensers there are "chili sauce" dispensers. I don't dig that sauce at all.

2. There are no apple pies. Only corn and pineapple pies. I don't think I'm about that either. Corn pies?

3. I saw at least three other foreigners eating there last night. We all pretended we didn't see one another. I imagine we didn't want admit to the others that we'd sunk that low. WE ARE NOT TOURISTS!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Weighing in With My Opinion

This is a scale from my school. The population of students is roughly four girls to one boy. All of the girls have some sort of body image issue. There are nose jobs, hair extentions, and stuffed bras abound! Ahh, to be sixteen again. I just find it curious that these scales are situated in three places around the school. This one is right before you get on the elevator, another is right before you get to the cafeteria and the last is right as you get on school grounds. Perfect places where there's bound to be some heavy foot traffic. I personally think it's the last thing the young women here need.

For one baht, you can see how much you weight in kilos! Before I filmed this today, I tried this once before and got 77 kilos. But one of my students caught me, she blabbed to nearly the entire school that I was fat. Sigh.

I know I'm not fat. For a woman my height, I'm right where I ought to be. When I'm not lazy, I might do sit ups or dance around in the evenings. That obviously constitutes a tough work-out. So what's the issue? Thailand, of course, since I've been here, all the foreign women I've come into contact with have complained about shopping for clothes or being referred to the "fat corner,"

And I am a chief complainer. Ever since I first came out here and went to the local Tesco to buy some work clothes, I noticed something was terribly wrong. According to the Thai, I'm morbidly obese. Okay, maybe not so much. And keep in mind, Asians are generally small people. So to find out that a size medium shirt you'd wear in the states is actually a size extra extra large here, is a little frustrating. And let me tell you, there are limited XXLs to go around.

And don't get me started about shoes.

Or long enough pants with enough room in the butt and hips.

Or about bras.

Or about fitting inside tuk tuks and most buses.

I'm a giant in so many ways. If I throw in the afro as well, I'll bet I'm an overwhelming sight for little children. They love to stare and I just wish I knew what they were thinking. I think they might be afraid. Well that's okay, kids are allowed some awe-inspiring sights every once in awhile. Hey! Maybe one of these days, I can get mistaken for WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie and get asked for an autograph! : )